Wi-Fi Where Art Thou?

By Gerry Blackwell

April 07, 2004

Quarterscope knows and plans to provide it with a new Wi-Fi Positioning System technology that can track you outside-- and in.

Move over GPS. Wi-Fi is making some moves on the space that satellite-based Global Positioning System technology has dominated until now -- outdoor positioning of mobile devices.

Quarterscope Solutions, a Needham, Mass.-based start-up won a first runner-up award for location-based services at the recent Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) annual show and conference in San Francisco.

Quarterscope won for its WPS (Wi-Fi Positioning System) technology which works outside and inside. WPS uses locationing software similar to that marketed by indoor Wi-Fi positioning developers such as PanGo Networks, Newbury Networks, Bluesoft and Ekahau.

Quarterscope's innovation: using war-driving techniques and Wi-Fi scanning tools, it is plotting the precise geographic locations of millions of Wi-Fi access points -- existing hotspots, corporate in-building and campus APs and residential units.

It can compute the location of any Wi-Fi-enabled laptop, PDA or phone running its software to within 20 meters by measuring the time it takes for signals to get from every AP that responds to the device's initial who's-there request. WPS can do this in about two seconds flat.

"We're not connecting into anyone's system," Quarterscope founder and president Ted Morgan hastens to point out. "We're not doing anything borderline illegal here. We're just taking advantage of the fact that when a Wi-Fi client sends out a scan request on start-up, access points respond saying, 'It's me.'"

Some access point owners may initially feel uncomfortable about their APs being used in this way, Morgan concedes. If they do, they have the option of configuring their devices to not respond to scan requests from unknown clients. When people understand that Quarterscope is in no way invasive, they won't have any objection, he believes.

The Quarterscope technology can be used with any positioning application or service that currently uses GPS, Morgan says.

This includes mapping programs such as Microsoft Streets & Trips and Delorme Street Atlas that provide interactive driving directions for laptops and PDAs, as well as emerging location services that tell mobile phone users on request where they are and where the nearest hotel, restaurant or auto body shop is from where they are.

WPS isn't as accurate as GPS -- yet -- but it doesn't need to be either, Morgan points out.

"When we talk to [cellular] carriers and the guys who build the applications, they're saying they don't need it down to 10 meters," he says. "There are a ton of applications where [20 meters] is good enough."

That said, Quarterscope believes the technology can eventually be as accurate as GPS is today.

This will come with refinements to the already sophisticated algorithms in the software, but also with the growth of Quarterscope's database of AP locations. The more APs there are on which to base locationing calculations the more accurate the system.

When Quarterscope launches commercial service sometime around the middle of the year, it expects to have 90-percent coverage in the 25 largest cities in the country. The 10 percent not covered will be city park and wilderness areas where there aren't offices or residences nearby.

Users will be able to buy the Quarterscope client software and subscribe to a service for a monthly fee. Pricing hasn't been set yet.

Before the company gets to that point there are a couple of things it needs to do first. To get the marketing clout it needs, Morgan believes, Quarterscope must strike deals with partners who are already offering or planning to offer location-based services.

Cellular carriers have shown interest in WPS as a possible supplement to existing positioning technologies -- including GPS and cellular triangulation techniques -- to make e911 services work better. Their government-mandated objective is to be able to determine where a 911 call is coming from without the caller having to say.

GPS doesn't work well or at all if the GPS-equipped device is indoors or even in the back seat of a car. It needs line of sight. Quarterscope's technology has other limitations - it needs to have access points within range.

While it may seem that WPS is a threat to GPS, Morgan believes it's possible he may end up partnering with GPS companies to build hybrid solutions.

"We see some of these technologies working in concert," he says. "You may need two systems. When you're out in the woods or rock climbing, GPS works great, but it doesn't work so well in downtown Manhattan."

Search engines such as Google and Yahoo are also interested in WPS because they're want to be able to offer location-based searching. With the population of Wi-Fi-equipped devices growing by leaps and bounds, it may make sense for them to use Wi-Fi positioning along with other techniques for determining a user's whereabouts when he requests a location-based search.

"It's early days yet," Morgan says of the effort to attract partners. "We've really just started aggressively talking to these folks. But we've had a positive enough response that I think we'll have a few of them [signed up] before the end of the second quarter."

The other thing Quarterscope must do is further develop and refine its database of access point locations. To that end, it is deploying hundreds of war driving vehicles to hunt out new APs and confirm the presence and location of previously located radios.

"This is to increase our coverage footprint and also increase the positioning accuracy," Morgan explains. "Also, as you might expect, because we don't own the access points, they move sometimes - or Grandma kicks out the plug. We need to capture that information, too."

Morgan claims Quarterscope can launch commercial service in the first 25 markets without additional funding. The company has been financed by the founders and angel investors, and is not actively seeking additional funds for now. That could change, though, Morgan says, if enough big partners come on board fast enough. If that happens, there could be a business case for moving ahead much more aggressively than the current plan.



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